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Energized USWNT has sights set on World Cup/Olympics double

Freshly qualified for the 2016 Olympics, the USWNT prepares to be the first team to win Olympic gold the year after winning the World Cup
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HOUSTON — The facts are stark enough: No reigning Women’s World Cup champion has ever gone on to win the Olympic gold medal the following year. There could be any number of reasons for that. Perhaps the short recovery time—just a year between major tournaments—makes it natural for World Cup winners to lose that little extra edge that got them to the top of the podium in the first place.

Perhaps it works in the other direction, with teams that missed out on a World Cup title feeling extra motivated to win Olympic gold a year later, as the U.S. has done in the last four Olympics.

Whatever the reason, the World Cup champion United States is aware it has a chance to make history in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics come August. Coach Jill Ellis brought it up with her team during its first camp of 2016 in Southern California. And on Friday night, the U.S. made that Olympic trip official with a 5–0 rout of Trinidad and Tobago, a tour de force of pure soccer quality that gave goalkeeper Hope Solo little to do on the field but inspired her into some historic thinking of her own afterward.

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“It says a lot about the game here in America,” said Solo, 34. “I’ve been on this team for a long time and I’ve seen different styles of play … But we are finally playing an incredible possession style of soccer, and it’s beautiful. And that’s a testament to the youth. It’s a testament to growing the sport in America. It’s a testament to U.S. Soccer having the grassroots teams and putting the money into really building players at a younger age. I think it’s incredible, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

If you thought the U.S. would stand pat on its World Cup triumph and coast into 2016, you would be mistaken. Ellis reminded her players at the end of the World Cup that they would have to be better in 2016 to win at the Olympics. The game is always evolving, after all, and to its credit so is this U.S. team.

Part of that is due to retirements (led by Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday), part is due to absences for pregnancy (Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez) and injury (Megan Rapinoe). But this U.S. team has found a depth that has given it real strength.

Consider: In a must-win game with the Olympics on the line, Ellis started 17-year-old left winger Mallory Pugh instead of Crystal Dunn, who’d merely scored five goals in the last game. The U.S.’s central midfield was composed of a 21-year-old (Lindsey Horan) and a 22-year-old (Morgan Brian). Add in a mix of talented veterans in the attack—Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath—and the U.S. just clicked.

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​Horan and Brian bossed the midfield. Lloyd persevered through some physical marking and found angles for her passes. Morgan fired home a hat trick to continue her resurgence. And Pugh? She fought through her nerves and might have been the best player on the field for the first 30 minutes. Buzzing up the left wing, Pugh made two terrific plays in the first 10 minutes to earn a corner kick and send a dangerous cross into the box out of nothing. And it was just the appetizer for her next cross, in the 12th minute, which found Heath in the box for a 1–0 lead.

“I knew she was ready,” Ellis said of her decision to start Pugh, “so it was kind of looking more at what we wanted to see. Part of it is in a tournament like this being able to utilize the depth, and we have depth in those positions. I think Mallory is a player where we put her on the left side specifically because Alex likes to run into that side, so she can come underneath … So it was really about what we wanted this particular game.”

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Said Pugh afterward: “I was just really excited and a little bit nervous because of how big the game was ... But I know without my teammates being there I don’t think I would be able to kind of let the nerves go away and just play the game.”

Pugh has an energy about her game, and it’s representative of the energy coursing through the U.S. team right now. It’s a jolt to watch. Nobody is coasting on having won a third World Cup star on her jersey. The point is to put this team in a position to win an Olympic gold medal at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio on Aug. 19. And Ellis set up the schedule this year with the design of doing everything possible to be the first team to accomplish the World Cup/Olympics double.

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“It’s certainly understood that that’s the target, that’s the goal,” Ellis said, “and now figuring out how to get from [point] A to B. Part of that is how do we do that? Well, we bring in some of the best teams in the world to prep us for that and to get us ready for that. We vet players in pressure situations, like we did today. I think it’s creating a culture and a belief in how we want to play in terms of being ready.”

Four games against quality opponents between Sunday and March 9 are meant to challenge the U.S. in its preparation. Canada on Sunday will be a fierce rivalry game, as it always is, and then come games on home soil against England, France and Germany, three of the best teams in the world.

“Today it’s exciting,” said Morgan. “We finally qualified. We don’t have to talk about qualifying anymore. This was the most important game we were looking forward to, and we got the job done. Now we have some really good opponents to face coming up on Sunday against Canada and then in our domestic tournament against top-five opponents. So it’s a really exciting month for us.”

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History is what it is in soccer. We made a big deal that a European men’s team had never won a World Cup in South America—and then Germany won the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it’s impossible to achieve.

When she was informed that no team had done the Women’s World Cup/Olympics double on Friday, Lloyd smiled.

“Well, bring it,” she said. “I think someone said last year the team that won the Algarve Cup had never gone on to win the World Cup, and we did that. And we’re going to crush this one, too.”